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The Hunt for Red Sox
2002-09-26 16:11
by Mike Carminati

The Hunt for Red Sox in October

Boston lost 7-2 to the White Sox yesterday to be officially eliminated from the wild card race. Seattle who started the day tied with the Red Sox and whose postseason hopes were in similarly dire straits, came from behind in the bottom of the eighth to beat Oakland 3-2 and keep their playoff hopes alive. That both of these teams will probably not make the playoffs seemed highly improbably after the first half. At the All-Star break, the Mariners were in first in the AL West and were up by three games on the Angels and five on the A's. The Red Sox were trailing the Yankees by two games but had a 1.5 game lead in the wild card race. The Sox are 39-34 since, a .534 winning percentage, which was good but not good enough to fend off surging Oakland and Anaheim. The Red Sox have won 91 games, more than some past World Series winners.

More remarkably, the Sox started June as the hottest team in baseball. On June 6, Boston was in first place in the AL East with a 40-17 record and a .702 winning percentage. Over an 162-game schedule that projects out to 114 wins, only two short of the all-time record. They led the Yankees by 3.5 games. No other team in baseball had more than 37 wins. The Red Sox had a 15-8 record to that point against playoff-caliber teams (7-3 vs. the Yankees, 3-3 vs. Seattle, and 5-1 vs. Oakland). Then the wheels came off.

Much has been made of the Angels' 6-14 start to the season and how they overcame it. The Red Sox had a stretch starting on June 7 and extending until the end of the month in which they were 6-14. During that period they played 12 games with playoff caliber teams and won only one. They were swept in a three-game series by the D-Backs, the Dodgers, and the Braves and lost 2 of 3 in another series with the Braves.

They have since gone 45-36, a .556 winning percentage. Indeed their winning percentage for the year excluding their June 7 to 30 debacle is .616.

There were some warning signs. The Red Sox had rolled up their great record by beating up on the dregs of the Al East. They were 18-4 in games with Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay played before June 6. Also, their record against playoff caliber teams does not look as good when you realize that Oakland was in the middle of a 3-14 run when they played the Sox. When Boston's best offensive player, Manny Ramirez, broke his finger and went on the DL on May14. His fill-in, Rickey Henderson, ran into a wall on June 2 and missed 12 games. Brian Daubach replaced Henderson and did miserably (.149 batting average and .529 OPS for June).

When their weak starting rotation (beyond Martinez and Lowe) started to misfire, it took the Red Sox far too long to come up with any solutions. It is doubly perplexing given that the solutions that they found were within their own organization (Tim Wakefield and Casey Fossum).

What exactly went wrong? The Sox entered the season with three subpar players in their lineup and allowed these players to stay in the lineup most of the year after being dazzled by their tremendous start. First baseman Tony Clark was signed in the offseason to a one-year, $5-million contract. He was approaching thirty, had just come of a year in which his OPS, slugging percentage, and home runs had dropped severely from his established levels, which were just acceptable for a first baseman. Clark started off hitting .171 in April (with a .473 OPS). He ended the year a .210 batting average, 3 home runs, 29 RBI, and a .562 OPS in 272 wasted at-bats.

Coming into the season, Jose Offerman had just severed through 2 subpar seasons, had turned 33, and was to be their part-time DH and first baseman. His numbers had dropped off not surprising after the Red Sox signed him coming off his 1998 career year with the Royals. His batting average dropped 50 points and his on-base percentage and slugging percentage by 60 points. He went from 45 steals in 1998 to 5 in 2001, 13 triples to 3, 102 runs to 76, and though his at-bats dropped by 83, his strikeout stayed about the same. In 2002, his batting average dropped another 35 points to .232 and his OPS 66 points to .650. He was mercifully taken off their hands by the Mariners in August but not before the Sox devoted 237 miserable at-bats to him. He started off with a .286 batting average and .830 OPS as a part-time player in April. Instead of realizing that his stock was as high as it would ever be and trading him, the Sox kept him in the lineup. Not only did they continue to play him but they upgraded him to starter to the tune of a .227 batting average (.691 OPS) in May and a .148 batting average (and .406 OPS) in June.

34-year-old shortstop Rey Sanchez was signed to a one-year, minor-league contract in the offseason and assigned to be the Sox' starting second baseman. It was a poorly conceived experiment from the start: Sanchez batted .264 with a .599 OPS in April. He got very hot in May (.382 batting average, .931 OPS), but came crashing back down to earth and never got back up (.283 batting average but .657 OPS).

In the rotation, the first problem was Darren Oliver who after being acquired from Texas for Carl Everett was 3-1 with a 2.89 ERA in April, allowing shrewd rotisserians across the country to their dupe unsuspecting colleagues. He won one more game before being sent down to Triple-A and subsequently released. Rolando Arrojo and Sun-Woo Kim were in turn enlisted to replace Oliver and ended up with a 5.26 and 7.27 ERA respectively.

John Burkett was signed to a two-year, $11-million contract after resurrecting his career in Atlanta in 2001. He started off the year 7-0 with a 3.86 ERA. He then refused to go to the All-Star game because it was in commissioner Bud Selig's hometown, Milwaukee. Thanks, Bobby Sands, but no one was asking. He finished 12-8 with a 4.69 ERA but was 5-5 with a 5.65 ERA in the second half.

Frank Castillo started out OK in April and May but ended up 5-15 with a 5.12 ERA. It wasn't until the second half that the Red Sox turned to Tim Wakefield and Casey Fossum, two members of their bullpen to plug the starting rotation holes. Wakefield, who began the year as a starter and was pulled after two so-so starts, is now fourth in the league in ERA behind teammates Pedro Martines and Derek Lowe. His ERA as a starter is actually better than both of theirs. Fossum has been respectable with a 3.38 ERA in 11 starts.

The Red Sox basically started the season as a weak team in the three offensive positions and three rotation positions (if you count first-year starter Derek Lowe). Their early success masked the fact that almost all of these weaknesses still existed. When Ramirez was hurt in May and the rotation started to falter, it caused a chain reaction where the weaker players were enlisted more and their weakness paired with falsely high expectation induced by the hot start began their crash in June. No new players were acquired except for Cliff Floyd at the trade deadline.

So what happens to the 2003 edition of the Red Sox? First and foremost, they must re-sign Floyd. Free agents Clark, Henderson, Sanchez, and Castillo should be wished a hearty Bon Voyage. Closer Ugueth Urbina who had a severe drop-off in the second half should be-resigned, and Tim Wakefield's option should be picked up. A new second baseman (maybe rookie Bryan Nelson) should be sought. It must be decided if three-quarter-timer Brian Daubach can be a full-time major-league first baseman. His .796 OPS and his age (30) would answer, "No, " but the Boston budget may decide otherwise. The rotation now seems set for 2003 with Martinez, Lowe, Wakefield, Fossum, and Burkett. The Sox need to commit to the mercurial Wakefield as a starter, something they have not been able in his last 4 years there. A backup for Burkett if he falters should be acquired. The club should but probably won't eat the second year of his contract. The bullpen beyond Urbina and lefty Allan Embree (also a free agent) is a mess.

The Red Sox should be able to reach the playoffs in 2003 with just a few well-directed alterations after three disappointing seasons. Of course, this is Boston and melodrama, whether real or imagined, is the word. Whatever does happen in 2003 for the Sox, it's sure to be entertaining.

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